Etiquette at Work

Tone, content add up to successful e-mails

Q. Like so many of us, I have had my fair share of sending e-mails tinged with frustration or annoyance or other emotion that, when expressed in an e-mail, is magnified 100-fold to the reader on the other end. As we all know, these often require apologizing for the tone of our e-mail.

Recently, I decided to be proactive to avoid the situation, and devised a method to guard against ugly intonation making its way into my e-mails.

I have hijacked the auto signature to create an auto salutation. Simply, when I start an e-mail or reply to one, the word “Dear” is automatically inserted although a few lines below the cursor, and I must position the cursor after the word “Dear” to insert the reader’s name. This slows down the process of writing an e-mail just a few moments, but also reminds me why I am doing this in the first place.


While the salutation “Dear” may seem a bit forced, especially with colleagues you have an informal relationship with, it is a small price to pay for ensuring that e-mail tone remains appropriate. Just a thought, in case you think it would help some of your readers.

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J. M., Boston

A. I applaud J. M. for his ingenuity, but more importantly for his focus on keeping the tone of his e-mails positive. E-mail is a fast means of communication, and that speed can be our downfall. We don’t proofread; we write without thinking about how it might sound to the recipient. Because J. M.’s device slows him down, he can consider more carefully how he is communicating and end up doing it more effectively.

What else can you do to ensure that your message is perceived as positive? One trick many participants in our business etiquette seminars suggest is to fill in the “To” field last. This prevents you from inadvertently sending a message before you have finished writing and proofing it.

Any time I write an e-mail and I think its tone could be misinterpreted, I ask someone else at Emily Post to read it. While I hear positive, they may hear negative and help me edit it to improve my message.


If no one is available, I’ll try reading my message out loud. When you listen to your words out loud, you can hear that snarky or sarcastic tone you really didn’t intend. Just as content matters, so, too, does tone. Thanks, J.M.

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